It’s been a bad few months for people who own technology stocks. For someone who doesn’t have enough cash to buy a new car, let alone invest in the stock market, I’ve paid little attention to the news about record losses. But there was a time, long ago, when I was almost a contender.
Back in the mid-1990s, while working as a web producer for Microsoft, I had to wear an orange ID badge around my neck, exposing the fact that I was a contractor, and not an employee. Employees sported blue badges.
Being an “orange badge” meant that I was paid hourly instead of yearly. My email address had to be preceded by an “a-”. I didn’t earn stock options and received no health benefits. My orange key barred me from entering certain buildings on campus, often causing me to feel like an Untouchable Orange in a world of Brahmin Blues.
More disturbing was the fact that I had no job security. Every time they assigned me a new project I was keenly aware that if I didn’t deliver a finished product on schedule and within budget, my contract would not be extended.
Given that I aspired to be one of those young glowing millionaires who strutted around with blue badges bouncing against their chests, I worked my ass off, usually putting in 60 or more hours in any given week.
Back then, the Microsoft Network (MSN) was little more than an ISP for dial-up users. It had email and some chatrooms, a few newsletters and such, but the company was desperate to jump aboard the speeding New Media train and compete with the likes of CompuServe and America Online. To do that, they’d need to add a whole lot more content.
“What if we come up with some sort of arts directory?” my then-boss Judith B. threw out during a meeting one morning. “I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of websites. We’ll tell people which ones are worth visiting.”
She assigned eight people to my team and told me to go forth and create something out of thin air. A few months later we launched Matter, Microsoft’s first online guide to arts and entertainment on the world wide web. It was pretty good. Elegant, fast, and bursting with hotlinks, animated gifs, and clever summaries, it was ahead of its time. Some days as many as 5,000 people clicked on it! (You can stop laughing now.) Here is the home page:
and one category of website links:
Because Bill Gates wanted to win the content war, he hired Hollywood hotshot Bob B. to lead the charge. Rumor was that Bob piloted the swift rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’m sure he had other, more relevant, credentials, but the turtle thing was all we talked about before he arrived on the scene. I still remember his first day on the job: it was early in the morning. The halls were silent but for a few early birds scattered about. I was sitting in my windowless office typing away when this bald guy with multi-colored glasses far too big for his face walked by. He stopped, backed up, poked that head of his in.
“Hi there,” he said holding onto the door jam. “I’m Bob. What do you do here?”
“I’m Lisa. I run Matter,” I replied proudly, eager to score points with my new chieftain.
He pushed those candy-colored frames up onto his head in what I would soon learn was a nervous gesture. They stayed there for a few seconds and then he dropped them back onto his nose and said, “It’s that zine with all the words?”
“Words? Um, yeah. But we also—”
“I’m pulling the plug on it today. Sorry,” he stated mercilessly before walking away.
Once it came to light that Bob planned to produce state-of-the-art multimedia content for a new and improved MSN 2.0 (he was given some $400 million to do so), I stopped panicking about being fired. I figured he was going to need people around him who knew their shit.
Following a few weeks of frenzied pitches (by blue-badges only), Bob greenlighted about a dozen “shows” that were to appear on one of six “channels.” That Bob’s aim was to fashion a television simulacrum for the internet seemed to many of us both innovative, as well as profoundly moronic.
Among the shows chosen was UnderWire, a show geared toward women. RIFF was all about music. Mungo Park would allow users to explore exotic destinations from the comfort of their desk chairs. Chatting live with someone like Jean-Michel Cousteau in real time was sure to be a quantum leap in online experiences.
Robert M., a blue-badged graphic designer who moonlighted as a builder of whimsical grandfather clocks, pitched a time-related trivia game show called How Long?
How Long? is a media-rich, interactive question-and-answer show that tackles any viewer question, provided it deals with time, begins “How long…,” and strikes our fancy. Answers are presented in pictures, sounds, animations, and words.
Every weekday, How Long? takes five new questions from its viewers and answers them with wit and alacrity, not to mention pathos, insight, and a little tongue-in-cheek. Weekend editions feature special topics and occasional celebrity guests.
Don’t let the artwork fool you into thinking we’re mostly for kids. We provide information on topics as wide ranging as the shelf life of dairy products, the birth of love affairs, and the death of the universe.
Robert’s show won a spot in the lineup. I was appointed producer, given a budget of $900,000, and a team of eleven people. In four and a half months’ time, we constructed the website and produced six weeks’ worth of daily questions and answers that were going to ooze their way through people’s still-mostly dial-up connections.
Because I had the funds, I even hired celebrities to answer some of the questions. Big names like Captain Kangaroo, the Car Talk guys, Gilbert Gottfried, and Dr. Ruth. (I just tried uploading the .wav file where John Ratzenberger tells us how long it takes to cook a 3-minute egg, but WP says it’s not a supported file. If you want to listen to it, email me and I’ll send: it’s very funny.)
I recall the uneasy excitement and anticipation in the weeks leading up to the official launch. It was going to be huge. Momentous. Microsoft produced a $2 million commercial, burned it onto a CD-ROM, and sent it out to its 1.6 million subscribers.
Days before the switch was to be flipped on MSN 2.0, J., one of the VP’s who reported to Bill Gates, met with all the producers to discuss the upcoming press conference.
[I wrote about J. in a previously published essay.]
During the meeting, J. informed us that she’d be projecting the new MSN onto an enormous screen in front of hundreds of reporters. She wanted to make certain that what they saw was the creme de la creme. After clicking through every show on every channel—commenting, critiquing, questioning—J. chose five shows to highlight for her presentation. Those of us who weren’t chosen for the Show and Tell were asked to leave the room.
On the day of the press party, I was working diligently at my desk, when my then-boss, Bill M., suddenly appeared outside my office. He looked as if he’d just been told his stocks had lost half their value.
“What?” I asked, mildly concerned.
“I’m supposed to fire you right now.”
I assumed it was because I’d perhaps stolen too many staplers and pens, and was just about to swear I’d return them, when he uttered, “Because of the orgasms.”
“Lisa,” he sighed woefully. “Did you know How Long? was running a question about orgasms today?”
I twisted around and clicked over to How Long?’s home screen. Sure enough, the question in the bottom right corner was “How Long Do Orgasms Last For Women?” I’d sent one of my editors to New York City a few weeks earlier to record Dr. Ruth’s penetratingly informative answer.
“I didn’t know it was on today’s page, no,” I said, confused by his interest. Our editorial calendar had been signed off on and fixed long ago. Every day another five questions and their answers were uploaded and left to their own devices. I had no time to check in with the daily offerings.
“You should have been warned [J.] about it,” Bill said. “She’s really angry.”
“She clicked on it?”
“But she didn’t say she was going to,” I protested. “We weren’t supposed be in the lineup.”
“Yeah, but she did.” Bill then went on to describe the scene of the carnage: J. up on the stage, clicking through the pre-selected shows, proudly parading their cutting edge interactive features to a packed house of a clearly-impressed news media. One show after another—the flashy animations, upbeat music, and imaginative content creating a dazzling spectacle. But then… maybe she got cocky, or someone in the audience asked what else she had. For whatever reason, J. clicked on Channel 2 and up popped the front page of How Long?; the word ORGASMS looming as large as an elephant behind her.
A reporter immediately raised his hand and asked if, given the adult nature of the show, Microsoft had a rating system in place, like the movies do. Would there be ways to block kids from seeing things their parents prefer they didn’t?
J. froze. Apparently, no one: not a single person, had bothered to consider this issue. Being the consummate executive, J. offered some “of course there will be” assurance and clicked on, finishing her presentation to thunderous applause. Just as J. exited the building, the car transporting Bill Gates, who was scheduled to speak next, pulled up to the curb. She said something to the effect of, “It went well, but be warned: you might be asked about orgasms,” before marching off to find the bonehead who’d embarrassed her.
“She’s furious,” he remarked after finishing the story. “She wants you gone.”
“You signed off on the content, Bill,” I whined in my own defense. “You knew the question was on the schedule.”
He shrugged. Looked behind him. “You lost a lot of points on this one, Lisa.”
“Do me a favor and just keep out of her way for a while, okay? Try not to let her see you,” he said, slowly closing the door to my office, effectively shutting the door to my blue-badged future as well.
With zero chance of advancing beyond minion status, I left Microsoft and embarked on a four-month adventure through southern Europe and eastern Africa with my new husband. While we ate tapas and stared at wildebeests, MSN 2.0 foundered. Human beings are a preternaturally impatient species, and having to wait up to a minute for a Macromedia Shockwave Flash animation to download was too much to bear. Some users hated the software so much, they created a website devoted to deriding it:
By the end of 1997, it was clear that MSN 2.0 needed to be overhauled. Most all of the fizzy game-like shows got axed, as well as the contract employees who produced them. As Amy Harmon reported in the New York Times [“More Geek, Less Chic; After a Tryout at Microsoft, the Hip Gives Way to the Really Useful” 13 Oct. 1997]:
“… even the hippest on-line programming and the most sophisticated literary efforts that the company has floated on MSN and the World Wide Web have not drawn enough of an audience to make money. Many of MSN’s shows were ”spectacularly unsuccessful” says Pete Higgens, vice president of Microsoft’s Interactive Media Group, citing as an example How Long?, which addressed questions cosmic and mundane about time and space.” [emphasis mine]
Was I hurt or humiliated by Mr. Higgens’ insult? Not at all. How Long? truly was nothing more than a mindless distraction, one I’d actually had a lot of fun producing. I was majorly vexed, though, when the same article mentioned Microsoft’s radical realization that what internet users really wanted was practical, informative content:
“Microsoft has, moreover, given MSN a makeover that emphasizes function over form, with easier-to-use E-mail and a new schedule of programming more heavily weighted toward fare like ”A Click Away,” an interactive directory of Web sites.” [again: emphasis mine]
A directory of web sites? Such a brilliant concept! Too bad the man with the big head and ties to turtles favored dazzle over depth. If he hadn’t killed “that zine with all the words,” I might not have had a run-in with orgasms. I might have instead been upgraded to blue badge status and endowed with enough high-earning stocks to buy a car that doesn’t smell like spoiled milk. And just imagine the staplers I could have bought.
Oh well. No matter.